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Textbook Publisher Announces ‘App’ Approach to Learning Materials

Long Beach—The phrase “there’s an app for that” may be coming to textbooks.

Today a major textbook company, Cengage Learning, announced a new e-textbook publishing platform that lets professors plug in apps, some made by other software companies, to add to traditional textbook content features like tutoring services or the ability to trade margin notes with other students.

The system is called MindTap, and it is scheduled to be announced at the annual TED conference here. When Chris Vento, Cengage’s executive vice president for technology and development, explained the system to a reporter, he felt the need to put the word “textbook” in air quotes, since traditional textbook content is a small part of the new product. These digital textbooks essentially bundle together several products sold by Cengage and its subsidiaries, including their electronic test-bank system, called Aplia, as well as videos and other materials that the company owns the rights to, including the archives of Newsweek.  And MindTap allows professors to customize the presentation of the material, by adding their own slides, video lectures, articles, or free online content from elsewhere.

The wider implications of this view–the textbook as a small part of a learning experience that’s now focused on related interactive software–were spelled out for publishing as a whole last week by William D. Rieders, executive vice president for new media at the company, in an interview with The Chronicle.

Competing textbook publishers already offer similar bundles of learning materials, but what appears unique is that Cengage officials are working with third-party e-learning companies to let them build add-ons that can be added directly into the e-textbooks. In that way, the system might work something like Apple’s popular online store for apps that work on its smartphones or tablet computers.

Students will read the online textbooks via a standard Web browser, though Mr. Vento says the Web pages are coded so that they adapt to fit whatever device the student is using, whether it is a laptop, iPad, or a smartphone. The system’s interface consists of two side-by-side windows, one displaying a page of a textbook and the other allowing users to open another app within the system, such as a notebook page to type and share notes, or any of the other apps that a professor enabled for his or her course.

In some ways, the Cengage system appears to be competing with course-management systems like Blackboard, which have also added features and customization so that professors can bring together learning materials and services in one interface. Mr. Vento said his company was not trying to compete with course-management providers, however, noting that professors will still want to use a course-management system for things like managing enrollment and submitting grades.

The move is the latest in a growing platform war among textbook publishers, as traditional textbook companies seek to define what a textbook should be in the digital age and possibly even control the online storefront for textbook publishing.

Cengage officials said that nine colleges and universities are testing MindTap, though it declined to name them. It plans to make it more widely available for sale starting in June.

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